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Is the Culture War Eating Every Policy Issue? The UnPopulist’s Editors Discuss

Is the Culture War Eating Every Policy Issue? The UnPopulist’s Editors Discuss

Partisan tribal affiliation is preventing Americans from having reasoned debates on transgender rights, Ukraine and qualified immunity

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With this episode of Zooming In, The UnPopulist introduces a new monthly feature: a roundtable in which our editors discuss select issues of the day. Readers should feel free to suggest topics for future roundtables in the comments section following the article.

A transcript of today’s podcast appears below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Zooming In, a project of The UnPopulist. I’m Aaron Ross Powell. We turn now to The UnPopulist editors’ roundtable, where I’m joined by Shikha Dalmia and Tom Shull to discuss the issues we’ve been thinking about recently. I will take the moderator’s prerogative to go first.

I’ve been paying a lot of attention lately to the debates around trans rights, and particularly the way that much of the right has weaponized worries about the rise of left-wing cultural preferences as a way to attack, in often very vicious ways and often through legislative changes, this rather marginalized and persecuted community. It’s been frustrating, as someone who remembers the debates about gay marriage, seeing people who ought to recognize the parallels between those debates parroting a lot of the same arguments against trans people that they rightly rejected against the acceptance of homosexuality and eventually gay marriage 10 to 15 years ago.

In particular, I see this as taking two forms. The first is an unwillingness to admit the source of their, call it anxiety, about growing, or at least for a time growing acceptance of transgender rights and trans identities. This plays out in how they talk about what they’re worried about.

Briefly, for a lot of centrist and center-left people and then people on the right who don’t want to just come out and say, “I think that transgenderism is an affront to nature” and so on, their argument is about children and risk. It’s about saying we don’t want to be doing procedures to kids, giving kids puberty blockers, encouraging identities and experimentation with identities that kids are later going to regret. And then noticing how we have a lot of data on the risks of this stuff. Clearly, there are risks: There are people who, say, regret developing a trans identity and undergoing gender-affirming care in whatever form that takes.

But the data is that the number of people who eventually regret it is relatively small. Comparing that risk to other things that we don’t tend to have moral panics about—we don’t have moral panics about parents, say, feeding their kids relatively poor diets that have long-term health impacts. We have moral panics about, say, the drugs, the puberty blockers lessening sexual pleasure later in life.

We don’t have those same things about circumcision, which is an involuntary medical procedure that has the same kinds of effects. The fact that we are pointing to risks in one area as cause for real concern or intervention but ignoring other risks to children in other areas says that it’s not really about the risk. It’s instead about the identities and the growing cultural acceptance.

This also shows up in the way that we talk about illiberalism coming from the left in these issues. I’m thinking about Damon Linker, who’s been on this show in the past, and who has a new newsletter, I believe, called Looking Left, which is about illiberalism. He’s been very good about illiberalism on the right. Now, he’s going to turn his attention to illiberalism on the left as well, where he defines wokeism, which he says needs to be defeated (that’s his term), as using the commanding heights of culture and cultural institutions to enforce progressive values.

The only examples he gives in this essay are The New York Times contributors writing a letter to the editors of The New York Times, a public letter, criticizing The Times’ relentless and mostly negative coverage of transgender issues over the last year or two, and then the employees of Netflix getting mad at Netflix for doing a comedy special by Dave Chappelle, in which he makes fairly offensive, if you’re transgender, anti-trans jokes—like a punching down sort of thing. Again, there’s an unstated assumption here, because if Netflix had done a comedy special where it was a white supremacist talking about Blacks, making jokes at Black’s expense, or if The New York Times were writing extensively about, well, maybe the Jews are up to something, and we should be a little bit concerned—just asking questions about Jewish conspiracy theories—we wouldn’t see this as wokeism for the employees to push back on their employers. We would see it as justified.

But with transgenderism, we see it as wokeism. I think there the unstated assumption is that being racist or being anti-Semitic is just worse than being anti-trans—that anti-trans jokes aren’t actually something that should be shamed, or that anti-trans coverage isn’t like anti-Semitic coverage. You can make an argument for that, but it’s unstated. It’s just assumed. If I take a step back, the thing that has been on my mind is the way that a lot of the people who are saying they’re very concerned about the rise of transgender identities and acceptance are not really stating what look like their real reasons, but are instead grasping at proxies for those reasons—sublimated reasons that don’t get at the core thing, which is just lots of people still hold fairly negative views of trans identities.

“A lot of the people who are saying they’re very concerned about the rise of transgender identities and acceptance are not really stating what look like their real reasons, but are instead grasping at proxies for those reasons—sublimated reasons that don’t get at the core thing, which is just lots of people still hold fairly negative views of trans identities.”
— Aaron Ross Powell

Shikha Dalmia: There’s a lot to unpack there, Aaron, as you like to say in many of your podcasts. I read Damon’s piece, and I’m largely in agreement with you. I think there is absolutely a double standard in how we talk about trans issues, which is a fairly new issue on the horizon compared to other forms of bigotry and racism which we have now clearly recognized as such.

Damon uses a certain definition of wokeism. He uses it pejoratively, although the term “woke” actually emerged in Black culture as simply being aware of the abuse of law enforcement. I’m trying to recall who came up with it … It was like, you don’t sleep, you stay awake, you stay “awoke,” because anytime the cops are going to come and get you for no real reason. It is important to remember the genesis of that term and how it has actually come to be deployed and weaponized on the right.

This is not to say that there are not clear excesses of progressive wokeness. There are. I was a little surprised by the two examples that Damon chose—more surprised by the Chappelle example than The New York Times coverage example. The New York Times coverage: I haven’t read all their pieces on transgender issues, but I think at least some of what I get is that many of them were pretty complex articles and features about the science behind transgender surgeries or interventions.

They did get pushback. There was not just one letter. There were two open letters against The New York Times: one from existing contributors and previous contributors, about 2,000 of them, and then another of actually trans people themselves. So little is understood about the inner struggles and travails of transgender folks that I am sure some of our assumptions against them creep into our normal conversation. That’s what crept into The New York Times coverage.

The Dave Chappelle example to me was more egregious, because what Dave Chappelle did and said, as you said, was pretty pejorative. You don’t need to have any extra sympathy for any group to know that’s not how you talk about another group. I was a little surprised by that.

On the other hand, to the extent that Damon—and this is where I have some sympathy for the critique of both causes, even though I think this whole right-wing critique of wokeism that they now control the commanding heights of culture, they control academia and they control Hollywood and they control the media, they use these commanding heights to exert pressure on different power nodes to get their way is highly, highly exaggerated—the part that I have sympathy for is that there often are innocent victims to this woke crusade that the progressives aren’t always sufficiently attuned to. If I were in Damon’s position, the example that I might have used is that of David Shor, who was a policy analyst, and who at one point simply retweeted the research of a Princeton professor, Omar Wasow, which said that fewer Democrats will come out to vote if—and this was, by the way, in the wake of the George Floyd Black Lives Matter protests, which I actually participated in—but there was this research that shows that fewer Democrats come out and vote in the election if such protests are violent, as compared to nonviolent.

David Shor got fired from his job for something like that. There is the issue about wokeism and its excesses. There is the issue of the right weaponizing wokeism, and then there is the issue of how we talk about transgenders. On the transgender issue, I find Damon to be the weakest in the examples that he used, and the way he’s talking about it. I think just as many of us regret how we used to talk about our gay friends 20 years ago, Dave Chappelle is going to regret how he talked about transgender people 20 years from now.

Tom Shull: To probe what you said, Aaron, I take entirely Shikha’s point. I think that’s absolutely correct—that there often is a time period in which people start to recognize, gee, I don’t actually have any stronger objection to this or that group of people to whom I’m unused. I haven’t spent a lot of time around fill-in-the-blank, and maybe I have some discomfort—it’s a cultural discomfort—yet I fully agree with their rights to be who they are, to do what they want, to have full equality under the law. All of this is without question in my mind, but it may still take some time for me to see the various ways in which subtle implications in my language may still be a bit thoughtless, harmful in small ways that we all recognize in social settings.

That kind of transition goes on, it seems to me, in almost every civil rights recognition that’s gone on in the past decades. How aggressively one points out those contradictions, those failures, those social inadequacies and thoughtlessness is always a challenge. It’s always going to be a challenge. Obviously, there’s something to be said for pointing it out subtly or more directly, in order to be fair to the people who are being discriminated against. I think we all recognize that.

There can also be the error of coming down so harshly on a person that it actually causes them to step back from the position that they were perhaps ready to take and actually say, “Well, no, I’m going to stand by what I originally was implying and I’m going to double down on it.” Then we get worse.

I don’t know that that directly answers your concern. I think it’s just part of the dynamic we’re seeing, and it is a difficult transition for some people to make. Also one thing I would bring up, Aaron, that I think is an interesting question: You may well be right that, for instance, if National Review or another right-wing organization—let’s say it’s Newsmax, what have you (I used right-wing; it’s a very fuzzy term; there are definite degrees and distinctions within that)—when they run an article about a child, let’s say, who is questioning their gender identity in school, and they talk to a counselor about it, and only months later, the parent finds out inadvertently that their child has this and that they’re being, say, referred to by different pronouns, by a different name, a different gender identity in the school, and the parent didn’t know that, they feel like there’s a parental rights issue.

It may well be the reason that they’re focusing so intently on that is because deep down they’re uncomfortable with the subject. But I don’t know that that necessarily makes the ultimate inquiry itself invalid because I think that’s part of what’s being debated. It’s just how much right and control parents have over their children up to the age of becoming adults.

Shikha: The transgender issue as it concerns minors is really a very, very difficult issue. It’s hard to get right, because it’s one of those existential questions. On one hand, transgender interventions are going to be much more successful before you hit puberty. On the other hand, that’s exactly the time when you are least equipped to be making these transformative decisions. How you discuss this and how you talk about it is extremely difficult.

I actually don’t have a problem with debating the science of it and debating the psychology of it. What I do have a problem with is talking about it in dehumanizing terms—the terms that, for instance, Michael Knowles used and that we addressed at The UnPopulist very recently when we republished the excerpt from Deirdre McCloskey’s book. Deirdre is a transgender woman now, but was a male and a highly, highly renowned economist, and she talks about her travails.

So to me the distinction is this: Are you talking about these issues in a way that is at least respectful and sensitive to the plight of the groups involved? Or are you going to be simply a troll and dehumanize them? I think that’s a basic boundary. I think I agree with you that that boundary is very often lost in discussions by the right. I’m actually surprised that Damon finds himself agreeing with David Chappelle on this, given that David Chappelle did speak in a pretty dehumanizing fashion.

Aaron: Shikha, now let’s turn to you. You said you wanted to talk a bit about Ukraine and the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war.

Shikha: Yes. This week has been, like you said, the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War. In the 20 years since then, the most fascinating development, I think politically—or at least one of them—has been the rise of the anti-war right. At the time of the Iraq war, there was an anti-war left, but there wasn’t an anti-war right.

Now, you have this phenomenon, and it’s really interesting how it is positioning itself on Ukraine vis-à-vis the Iraq war. The right has gone back and revised its view, its position, on the Iraq war, and it now regards it as a hegemonic war—it was an instance of American imperialism.

And I actually agree with all of that. At the time the Iraq war happened, I was at The Detroit News, and I was writing editorials against that war. I don’t know, Tom, if you were still there at that time or not.

Tom: I was not.

Shikha: Tom and I are colleagues from way back when. One of the problems with the Iraq war was—I was actually in India when it was launched. Watching it with my friends and family in India was really uncomfortable, because they were clearly all rooting for America to bear a very heavy cost militarily, human, financially for that war. Their reasoning was that if America can go and topple, unprovoked, a sitting regime without paying a big price, well, where would it stop? I agreed with that, but the Ukraine situation is extremely, extremely different.

Ukraine is not the U.S. spreading liberal democracy at gunpoint. Ukraine is clearly an instance when an authoritarian bully has attacked the boundaries of a country, which is a fledgling liberal democracy, not a perfect liberal democracy, and yet the anti-war right weirdly enough speaks with great moral authority, as if it’s on the pacifist side, and it is the one that is calling out American imperialism.

What you see also is a perfect convergence between the right and the left horseshoe theory. Noam Chomsky made a statement, something to the effect that Donald Trump was a moral authority on the Ukraine issue because he has criticized the United States and praised Putin and his aggression. You see some of this echoed in the positions that the Republican candidates or potential presidential candidates are taking.

DeSantis, who is the leading candidate after Trump, hasn’t gone all MAGA anti-war, but he’s come pretty close. It’s not clear that if he were president, he would continue to support Ukraine—and we are not talking about committing ground troops; nobody really is in favor of that—but just morally and materially. Surprisingly enough, the only one who came close to making a moral case against Russia and for Ukraine is Pence. Pence called out Russia as the aggressor. Very few of the other Republican candidates are willing to do that.

I’m just befuddled by this turn on the right that here it is, taking this anti-American, pro-authoritarian position in the name of being anti-war and trying to put a patina of morality on that position. I’m interested in your thoughts.

Tom: Well, a couple of things occur to me in what you say. One is that it seems to me that the seeds of what we’re seeing now were already present back with the Iraq war. Famously Pat Buchanan said that this has quagmire written all over it.

In a sense, what Donald Trump has been, has been a delivery on the ideas that Pat Buchanan had. He was skeptical about immigration. He wanted America to concentrate more on its own interests at home—to define its own interests abroad much more rigidly, and essentially be less internationalist in its thinking and its scope. I think that’s part of what we’re seeing.

I think another part of what we’re seeing—maybe two things that contribute to it, and then I’ll happily cede the floor. One is that that war went very badly, and there was a lot of disenchantment with the people who ran that war. I was doing survey research at the time—I was working with the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey of public opinion—and what you saw is that people supported this war on the assumption that there were weapons of mass destruction. Those never materialized, and because they did not, you had a great deal of disaffection, disenchantment, I believe, among many Americans. I believe it became easier, then, for skepticism of the kind that Buchanan was expressing to be held more broadly by Republicans.

And I think, finally, the simple fact that this happened on Joe Biden’s watch, and that he and Democrats came out in favor of it in our very polarized political atmosphere nudged a number of people on the right to say, “Okay, we’ve got to come out and smack this in the nose.” And I think that’s part of what we’re seeing too.

Shikha: Your history is absolutely accurate. The seeds of this were sowed by Pat Buchanan. The issue here is not so much Iraq, but its bearing on Ukraine. One can without any contradiction take the position that the U.S. is not in a position to do anything on Ukraine—maybe, perhaps, that it shouldn’t even do anything on Ukraine. What surprises me is that they feel that the U.S. is in the wrong here and Putin is in the right, and this is a position that Chomsky takes.

They are bending over backward to come up with ways to justify the U.S. as the malign force over here. There are all kinds of theories about NATO expansion, and there’s a grain of truth to that. Alex Jones has even suggested that the U.S. was funding some kind of a bioweapons lab in Ukraine, which forced Russia’s hand. It is this inability to make moral distinctions—and in fact, not just not make moral distinctions, but make the wrong distinctions—that is really striking to me here.

Aaron: I guess I want to pick up on something both of you said, because, Tom, you talked about the partisan nature of this response, and I think that’s the crux of it. Going back to Donald Trump as the anti-war candidate: There were a lot of people who saw him as the anti-war candidate. And granted, when your opponent is Hillary Clinton, it’s very easy to look like an anti-war candidate, no matter how pro-war you happen to be.

It always seemed obvious to me that Trump was not anti-war. What he was “anti” was the stuff his predecessors had done—that everyone who held the office before him was an idiot, had messed things up. Any projects that they had that were ongoing were mistakes. He was also incredibly belligerent. With all of his comments about how we’re going to go in and get the oil, we need to invade to get the oil, I’m surprised he didn’t start more wars. He was never an anti-war guy.

Shikha: It reminds me of a quote of Virginia Postrel’s, where she said, “He’s not opposed to war; he’s just opposed to losing wars.” That was perfect.

Aaron: Then the other portion of this—you mentioned Virginia, and I think I brought this point up in the podcast that we did with her—is that the culture war has basically eaten everything. In that context, it makes sense that the right would latch onto Putin as someone who either, in some extreme versions of the right, is someone we should absolutely support, or soften it into, “He’s a victim here,” because there was the whole Russia hoax thing. That turned the right away from being super anti-Russia and turned them towards being more sympathetic to Russia, because the left suddenly was very anti-Russia.

Also, Putin has taken on this role, similar to Viktor Orbán, as a great defender of trad western, white, masculine Christian values. They see Putin’s Russia as a North Star, in a way they do Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, for these far-right national conservative kind of views. That has softened dramatically their position on Putin. That’s why you see a lot of the framing of Ukraine as actually this decadent and corrupt place that’s been overrun with Nazism and so on, and Russia is the white, male Christian defense against that.

Shikha: I think that point really can’t be understated. There is clearly an alt-right-to-Putin pipeline in some ways. Putin love has been a very big part of the fringe right now even before Trump, I would say, and then Trump came and legitimized it in a way that any other president may not have done.

“There is clearly an alt-right-to-Putin pipeline in some ways. Putin love has been a very big part of the fringe right now even before Trump, I would say, and then Trump came and legitimized it in a way that any other president may not have done.”
—Shikha Dalmia

So now here you are just one year before the next election, and all the presidential candidates on the Republican side are playing on this very different moral terrain, which was established fully during Trump’s time. You have this very peculiar instance when Republican candidates can’t make up their mind whether they are for this authoritarian or against this authoritarian, and what exactly the U.S. interest might be in standing up against him.

Tom: It does seem to me that part of what we see is a legitimate, in some cases, inquiry into what the United States did in the past and whether it was wise or not. Questions of NATO expansion, questions of where boundaries were drawn—all of these things could be legitimately critiqued as being wise or unwise.

You might conclude they’re unwise. The mistake, I think, is to turn around and say, “And therefore that legitimizes what we saw Vladimir Putin do in February last year.” I think that’s part of the flaw here—the sense that being politically incorrect about just how well the United States behaved therefore can be extended to this idea that, “Hey, now it’s just perfectly okay if he wages a war of aggression against Ukraine, because he really would like his boundaries to be different; he would really feel more secure if he had the Crimea and some sort of land bridge that gives him a greater ability to defend himself through his Navy.” All of that question of trade and what have you, it’s a separate issue. Sure, of course, go back and critique America’s decisions and its internationalism if you want, but that’s separate from this issue.

Aaron: Tom, we’ll turn back to domestic issues with you to talk a bit about qualified immunity.

Tom: Qualified immunity sounds like it has to be just one of the most incredibly dull subjects you could imagine, but in fact, it has really heated up, and there’s a good reason for that. For those of you who have been following The UnPopulist closely on this issue, you know it’s become highly discussed because of some high-profile incidents: George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis Police; the question of Tyre Nichols’ beating and death in police custody three days later. Both of those incidents obviously raised a great deal of concern—and we’ve seen others prior to that—about police brutality, and questions of whether they are acting cavalierly in their use of force.

So why is it that qualified immunity is a big deal? Let me just talk about that briefly before I talk about what’s happening.

There are really two ways in American law that you’re going to go about trying to right a wrong when something’s gone wrong. One of them is through criminal law. Someone looks and says, “Hey, what you just did is a crime under the law,” and a member of the government—a district attorney, a federal prosecutor—is going to then bring charges against you, go into a criminal court of law and try to find you guilty. When they do, they may put you in jail; they may fine you. All of this happens at the behest of the state. That’s one way that you hold people accountable.

Another is through civil law, and we’re familiar with this: It’s lawsuits. In that case, it’s not that the state intervenes; it just adjudicates. So I, as an individual, say, “You did something wrong to me.” I think I can prove it in court, I hire a lawyer, I sue you. You say, “No, I’m one hundred percent convinced that what I did was right, and I’m going to defend myself.” We go into court, and I try to get some sort of compensation for the harm that you did to me.

Those are the two ways. What we’ve seen with George Floyd and what we’ve seen with Tyre Nichols is that immediately criminal charges were brought. What we need to know, what we need to recognize, is that yes, that can happen when somebody catches a really brutal case on camera and it goes viral. Then you may get local prosecutors and federal prosecutors stepping in to discipline police.

But that is not the way it usually happens. What usually happens is that the prosecutors have limited time and resources, and they also have, in many cases, a close affiliation with the police in the area. They work with them on a regular basis, and it’s awkward for them. It’s not their first impulse to go kick the tires on these things and then dig down and send somebody to jail.

So the reason that qualified immunity is such a big issue is that the real hope for keeping police disciplined and keeping police departments concerned about following good procedure and adhering to the law—all of that comes about because of the possibility of citizen lawsuits. You beat me up, I go to a hospital, it hurts, I spend time away from work, so I sue you for compensation. If you kill me, then my family sues you for compensation.

Those lawsuits commonly get blocked by qualified immunity. What qualified immunity is sounds very reasonable on the surface: It’s that only if a police officer or another government official has acted against clearly established law—has clearly violated the constitution—are they going to be held accountable.

But as a practical matter, in the courtroom, what that means is that you have to be able, when you sue that police officer, to point to a case that is almost exactly identical to your own, in which somebody’s constitutional rights have been held to be violated—and it has to happen within the same federal district that you’re in. So if you are in Tennessee, it doesn’t help the point to California.

The problem then becomes that it’s almost impossible to sue and that means that in so many instances of gross violations of rights, there’s nobody there to pressure a police officer, to pressure a police department to get rid of bad officers, to make the bad officers get out of the profession. This is demoralizing for police, it denies victims restitution and it makes, ultimately, a mockery of constitutional rights, because you can’t enforce them. Someone may be able to point and say, “Well, that was obviously a violation of your rights,” but it doesn’t really mean much.

We had Congress trying to step in and do something about that after the George Floyd incident. There was the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and it passed the House, went to the Senate and died in part over qualified immunity.

Now with the beating of Tyre Nichols, there was hope that it might be revived, and it’s clear from the news reports that President Biden has said yes, he would like to see this. We have Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina talking again, according to reports, but it’s not clear. We’ve written at The UnPopulist that this would be a good thing to do, this would be a good time to look at it, and there is some hope. But we’re not seeing the kind of movement that we’d like to see in order to know that something’s going to happen.

Shikha: Tom, what’s the holdup? Who is the holdup here?

Tom: Well, it’s hard to say especially because I’m not on the floor in Congress watching all this happen. The few people that I’ve been able to reach out to who are tracking this aren’t really sure themselves. What we know is that in the past, there was a sense that Republicans in the Senate became uncomfortable with some of the language that was being suggested for enforcing, in particular, lawsuits against police. There was a debate over whether it should involve only those instances of grievous bodily harm or death—not instances where something’s stolen, or where I’m incarcerated for a few weeks, lose my job and then get out, but have no recourse.

That was a stumbling block. It’s likely enough that—I know there was a reversal on the Republican side about their comfort with disciplining police in this way. In a sense, it’s not completely a shock, because there’s a sense always that there’s this possibility of frivolous lawsuits, and the fear that a policeman who is making a split-second decision, life or death, is going to suddenly be sued and second-guessed by people who have the benefit of reflection and looking at all the facts.

But as a practical matter, qualified immunity does not involve that at all. If it’s split-second, if it’s heat of the moment, it is subject to a completely different standard called, “What’s reasonable? What would the reasonable person do in this case?” If you reach for a gun that’s empty and point it at a policeman and you get shot, no one’s going to hold that he did something unreasonable there. That defense would remain. Qualified immunity doesn’t touch that.

What qualified immunity deals with is those cases where a court would look and say: “Well, that doesn’t look reasonable. That looks like a constitutional violation. But there’s qualified immunity. You can’t point to an exact case that’s been adjudicated like this before, so we’re going to throw it out, even though we actually look at it and think, ‘Yes, that was unconstitutional, and you were harmed.’”

Shikha: So are you saying that the concerns about the qualified immunity bill that was initially floated after the George Floyd incident were reasonable, so there were reasonable considerations that stymied it? Or is this just politics? I mean, Republicans are famously against unions, except for police unions and firefighter unions. How much of that is going on—just Republicans liking law and order and law enforcement agencies?

Tom: Again, I’m not present on the scene, so I haven’t heard the arguments they’re making behind closed doors. I think it’s likely enough that there’s some good-faith misunderstanding and concern.

Do I believe that there are political factors? Sure, it’s Congress. It’s the Senate. I’m going to guess that politics is involved in that connection between the police community and Republicans. It sure is going to make it harder for them to see their way clear.

Aaron: I think there’s also an angle, to restate myself, of “the culture war eats everything” to this, because the place that police hold in American culture has diverged quite a lot in a way that mirrors the time prior to the Vietnam War, when there wasn’t a lot of criticism of the U.S. military—publicly out there criticism. And if you did that, you were suspected of being a Red or something worse. The Vietnam War deeply changed that to the point where people trusted leaders in military situations less than they had in the past.

The police long held that they were pillars of the community—the cops walking the beat who knew you, the Norman Rockwell paintings of cops and so on. That has begun to shift, but it has shifted along largely culture war lines, so that the left has become much more skeptical of cops, much less trusting of them. The right sees them as “our guys” and the people holding civilization together: The “thin blue line” flags are exactly that.

Because it’s a culture war issue, staking out any nuanced position makes you look suspicious to your tribe because you might actually be a member of the other tribe. So that’s making it harder.

Then I think the other big thing is that police still wield extraordinary power through their unions, on the one hand, which can then bring great pressure on politicians either running for office or running for reelection, but also in the media. It’s like a running joke among criminal justice reform people how much journalists just act as stenographers for police departments, just without any critical thinking, repeating whatever an officer told them as truth. That makes it so that the American public gets a particular perspective on this that I think then plays even more into this divide, because you see people on the left marching in the street and being really critical of cops when even your mainstream press is presenting the police view as the official and right one.

Then the unions themselves: Again, it’s almost impossible to break the strength of those unions, because on the one hand, the right loves cops, and on the other hand, the left loves unions, and particularly public sector unions. The police unions can just ride those two attitudes to extraordinary power.

Then anytime anyone steps forward and says we need to reform this—you can see what happened to reform DAs in various cities. Cops basically stopped working in a lot of cases, and some petty crime went up. Then they were like, “Look, petty crime’s going up,” and the voters are like, “Oh no, petty crime is going up. We need to get a law-and-order DA back in.” I think it’s just that cops are such a charged cultural thing that it’s really hard to get movement on, and anyone who steps out of line on their particular side can be punished pretty severely.

Tom: Aaron, I think that’s a great observation, and I would say that there’s really a tragedy going on here. It’s just genuinely sad, because this is a nuanced and difficult problem to solve. You’ve seen the public’s view of the police declining; in the past, they were always well-viewed. If you look at survey research, it has just been dropping and dropping and dropping.

Morale has also been dropping amongst police departments. In Minneapolis there was recently a suit (this is post-George Floyd). They’ve actually dropped below the number of police officers that are mandated by their city charter. There is so much violence that people are leaving the area. This is demoralizing to police. At the same time, there’s a very demoralizing aspect to the police of having these grossly negligent officers being employed and then being found out, discovered, hurting their reputation, hurting the reputation of policing itself. That also is extremely demoralizing. They’re having trouble with recruitment, the numbers are falling, the morale is falling, people are retiring early and somehow you’re going to have to fill those shoes. And that’s not an easy thing to do.

Shikha: Yes, that’s correct, but I think police departments are so resistant to reform. Simple things like sharing data, transparency—they will not share statistics about police misconduct, which some very often compile (sometimes they don’t), but they will not share it with anyone. There is this insularity and this fraternity within the police department which they enforce and they are wedded to, which makes it very hard for police reform to happen, even as they recognize what bad apples are doing to them.

Anyway, I guess we are not going to sort this out today. But to your point, like I mentioned, after the George Floyd killing, I went on a Black Lives Matter march in Southfield, Michigan, and it was actually led by a Black police officer of the Southfield Police Department. So clearly there was momentum then at the grassroots level, even within police departments. Somehow it all just came to naught.

Tom: Yes. In what I was mentioning earlier, I was trying to provide some of the nuance that I think is very much there, and that I think Aaron correctly points out is just cut down to the ground, as if it doesn’t exist, in the culture war arguments over this. That to me is really a tragedy. It’s a shame, because safety in your home, safety in your personal property and all of those things— safety in your car—these are fundamental to not only our constitutional rights, but to the quality of life. Getting this right is not easy, and it’s very, very important.

At the same time, there’s no question that police departments have been in a position of power in terms of their control of information, their control of the narrative, their control of what kinds of disciplines they’re subject to. All of that has had a very corrosive effect on the behavior of a lot of people in police departments—and that, too, is terrible, because the only thing, of course, that stops you from reinforcing that behavior is just your individual code.

“There’s no question that police departments have been in a position of power in terms of their control of information, their control of the narrative, their control of what kinds of disciplines they’re subject to. All of that has had a very corrosive effect on the behavior of a lot of people in police departments—and that, too, is terrible, because the only thing, of course, that stops you from reinforcing that behavior is just your individual code. That individual code is going to be stressed repeatedly in a job like policing.”
— Tom Shull

That individual code is going to be stressed repeatedly in a job like policing, where you do make very difficult decisions—where people close to you, your fellow officers, may be threatened, and of course you have a strong desire to defend them, because you know they would do the same for you in this position. So you’re constantly faced with moral quandaries. When a system protects you and others as much as this current system does, you’re going to get some good people doing some not-too-pretty things, and that’s the shame of it.

Aaron: Thank you for listening to Zooming In at The UnPopulist. If you enjoy this show, please take a moment to review us in Apple Podcasts and also check out ReImagining Liberty, our sister podcast at The UnPopulist, where I explore the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical, social, political and economic freedom. Zooming In is produced by Landry Ayres and is a project of The UnPopulist.


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